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Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's stabilocrat

Norbert-Mappes-Niediek - t Korrespondent mehrerer deutschsprachiger Zeitungen in Südosteuropa
Norbert Mappes-Niediek
June 22, 2020

Serbs appear to have chosen stability in the parliamentary election, with the president's party winning around 61% of the vote. All opposition has apparently been vanquished, says Norbert Mappes-Niediek.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
Image: Reuters/M. Djurica

At a time when the rest of the world seems to have gone crazy, calm and contentment prevail in — of all places — the heart of the Balkans.

For decades, the theory was that countries in this oft troubled region would only find safer waters if they steered steadfastly toward Europe, democracy and the rule of law. This, apparently, was all wrong.

Read more: Serbia elections: Who's left besides Vucic?

Serbia appears to have found itself at last thanks to authoritarian President Aleksandar Vucic. Instead of bobbing along in the wake of the rolling tanker that is the European Union, the president is guiding his ship of state with a firm hand amid the perils posed by the turbulent sea of world events. And he has even shown everyone how to arrive safely on new shores: Vucic intends to travel to the White House as early as Saturday to celebrate a "reconciliation" with Kosovo, or at least "start a new chapter." Security and order can't be guaranteed by Europe or Chancellor Angela Merkel; that's now the job of Vucic and — hard to believe — US President Donald Trump.

Yes, it's hard to believe — and we'd be wise not to.

SNS as an apparatus of power

Even interpreting the fabulous election result as a vote of confidence in the president is wrong. His Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) does not operate in a pluralistic system where various parties try to win over voters with ideas and arguments. It's not one party among others, but the sole real party: an apparatus of power in the same way the Communist Party once was.

Mappes-Niediek is a Southeast Europe correspondent for numerous German-language newspapersImage: L. Spuma

Individuals looking for a job, executives aiming to drum up business, local politicians who need tax money for their constituencies — they all have to make an arrangement with this omnipresent force.

The SNS has around 730,000 members, making it Europe's biggest political party — outright, not in relative terms —  even though the country has a population slightly larger than that of Madrid. Anyone who owes their job or position to the party — and that's the case with almost everyone employed in Serbia — is well-advised to vote for the SNS. If it loses power, their jobs will also disappear.

Read more: My Europe: Trump's Balkan deal sends shivers through southeastern Europe

It's a closed system, and during election campaigns it becomes even more hermetic. Activists call up all members and sympathizers who owe something to the party and ask them, seemingly innocuously, how they will vote. Who wouldn't express their devotion under such circumstances?

The party has built up its power with military precision by providing small subsidies and donations for local radio stations, doing favors for local mayors and handing out generous contracts. Its power grew unnoticed like a rising flood, and before the many rival political forces knew what was happening they had gone under.

It's been less than a decade since Vucic, a former protege of late ex-dictator Slobodan Milosevic, came to power, at first nominally as deputy prime minister. But today he is a towering presence in the country — physically as well, at almost 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall. The Socialists, the second-strongest party at around 11%, are mere also-rans, like the bloc parties in the former East Germany or the Socialist Alliance of Working People in Yugoslavia.

Clever maneuvering

The system is stable — as stable as the communist system that came before it. But it can only function when there is something to hand out and distribute. Thanks to clever tactics, that's still the case: Up until the coronavirus pandemic, EU subsidies and Chinese investments made Serbia, together with Romania, the country with the highest growth rate in the region. And it's predicted that the post-pandemic slump will be less drastic here than elsewhere. Investors like the country: The all-powerful party makes it a "one-stop shop:" licenses aren't a problem, and they're met with little to no resistance.

Serbia imposed stricter measures to combat COVID-19 than any other country in Europe. There was a curfew from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. for people under 65, and a total lockdown for those 65 and over, with draconian penalties for violations. But the virus, unlike people, cannot be intimidated by an authoritarian state, and it thrives where social conditions are dire.

After initial successes, the number of infections is increasing once again, particularly in student dormitories where residents live in much the same cramped conditions as the workers in some German slaughterhouses. But until election day, the topic of the coronavirus stayed very much in the background. The election date, it seems, was perfectly chosen.

Masters in their own houses

This situation has its similarities with the new regional stability sought by Vucic. Now that no one is left to contradict him — even the Orthodox Church is kept on a short leash — the president is at last free to solve the troublesome issue of Kosovo in his own way.

Read more: EU's broken promises in the Balkans lead to rocky road in 2020

For two years, Vucic and his Kosovar alter ego Hashim Thaci have been battling over an exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo. There's been no talk of real reconciliation, of coming to terms with the past, of a general decline in tensions. Quite the opposite: With their preferred solution, both leaders would become masters in their own houses and would no longer need to consider the rights of pesky minorities. The fact that Trump is playing the peacemaker here fits perfectly: replacing international rules with bilateral "deals" between strongmen is the US president's way of doing politics. And if the maneuver also serves to upset the Europeans, so much the better.

Sunday's election result was fantastic for Vucic. But in Europe, stability can be a tricky thing. As the Russian-American author Alexei Yurtchak once wrote, "Everything was forever, until it was no more."

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